Etty Hillesum was a Dutch Jew whose life ended at age 29
in Auschwitz. However, it is neither the brevity of her life, nor
its tragic conclusion, that makes Etty Hillesum special. What made
her special was what has allowed adherents of several different
religious streams to claim her as exemplary of what is best in their
In its outward manifestation Etty Hillesum’s life was neither
particularly Jewish nor Christian nor anything else; however, it
was unequivocally and uncompromisingly hers, dismissive of the artificial
boundaries between one person and another, one group of human beings
and the next. In her relentless search for meaning and truth and
love Etty came to transcend even the most unbridgeable gap of all:
the one that divides us from recognizing the humanity of our enemies.
Watching her friends whom she had cared for and nursed as a volunteer
in the Westerbork camp disappear into the trains, knowing where
they went, and finally even choosing to follow them, did not eradicate
her appreciation and celebration of life, nor her gratitude for
being given the opportunity to experience it as long and fully as
she might. To the end she made better what she could, and tried
to recognize God’s hand even in those things she could not.
The name „Hillesum“ is to remind us simply of that: that we must
strive to see as kindred spirits even those with whom we do not
agree, that all are God’s children entitled to be treated as such.
Of course, even in her extraordinary ability
to resist bitterness and cynicism and the demonization of
the other, Etty Hillesum has good company, from Rebbe Nachman
of Bratzlav to Muhammas Gandhi to Mother Teresa. They all
embody what the Dalai Llama calls „the religion of kindness“
that is the shared heritage and obligation of all human beings.